You are on page 1of 26

Biographical research

Principles and Practice in


Survey Research
BRIAN ROBERTS
Open University Press
Buckingham Philadelphia
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page iii
Thisbook isdedicated to Evan and Mary for life,
care and memories
Open University Press
Celtic Court
22 Ballmoor
Buckingham
MK18 1XW
email: enquiries@openup.co.uk
world wide web: www.openup.co.uk
and
325 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA
First published 2002
Copyright Brian Roberts, 2002
All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of
criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written
permission of the publisher or a licence from the Copyright Licensing Agency
Limited. Details of such licences (for reprographic reproduction) may be obtained
from the Copyright Licensing Agency Ltd of 90 Tottenham Court Road, London,
W1P 0LP.
A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 0 335 20286 1 (pb) 0 335 20287 X (hb)
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Roberts, Brian, 1950
Biographical research/Brian Roberts.
p. cm. (Understanding social research)
Includes bibliographical references (p. 178) and index.
ISBN 0-335-20287-X ISBN 0-335-20286-1 (pbk.)
1. BiographyResearchMethodology. 2. Biography as a literary
form. I. Title. II. Series.
CT22.R63 2001
808.06692dc21 2001021067
Typeset by Type Study, Scarborough
Printed in Great Britain by Biddles Ltd, Guildford and Kings Lynn
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page iv
Contents
Series editors foreword ix
Acknowledgements xi
1 Introduction: biographical research 1
Biographical research: dening the eld 1
The development of biographical research 3
Methodological issues 6
The researchers role 13
Theoretical approaches 14
Biographical research 15
Recommended reading 17
2 Uses of biographical research 18
Uses of biographical research 18
Disciplines and contexts 22
Education 23
Oral history 24
Health and ageing 25
Feminist research 28
Narratives of the body and sexuality 29
Autobiography and biography 30
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page v
Conclusion 31
Recommended reading 31
3 The life history 33
The life history 33
Individual lives and social structures 34
Life history data and method 37
Deviance, career, becoming 40
Case studies 42
Types of interpretation 46
Conclusion 50
Recommended reading 51
4 Autobiography and biography 52
Autobiography and biography denitions 52
Genre 56
Issues in autobiography and biography 60
Letters, diaries, memoirs and other personal artefacts 62
Case study 66
Fiction and non-ction 69
Conclusion 71
Recommended reading 72
5 Auto/biography and sociology 73
Auto/biography denitions and relations 73
Individual experiences and auto/biographical writing 75
Feminism and auto/biography 77
Intertextuality written and oral texts 78
Hermeneutics, phenomenology and narrative texts 80
Time perspectives Mead, Schutz and Ricoeur 82
The researcher as an auto/biographer 84
The researcher and the researched subject 87
Individual lives and social lives 88
Case study 88
Conclusion 91
Recommended reading 92
6 Oral history 93
Oral history denitions 93
Uses and types of oral history 95
Origins 97
Development and purpose 99
Ethics 104
Evidence, truth and the researcher 104
vi Biographical research
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page vi
Political standpoint 107
Case study 110
Conclusion 113
Recommended reading 113
7 The narrative analysis of lives 115
Narrative analysis denitions 115
Narrative analysis 117
Time and narrative 123
Myth and narrative 124
Case study 128
Other models of life study 130
Conclusion 132
Recommended reading 133
8 Memory and autobiography 134
Types of memory 134
The social transmission of memories 140
Case study 142
Family and group memories 144
Public and private memories 145
Methodological issues: recollection and selectivity 147
Conclusion 148
Recommended reading 149
9 Ethnography and biographical research 151
Fieldwork, ethnography and participant observation
denition and practice 152
Research roles 152
Methodological issues 153
Ethnography and key informants 154
Reexivity and the researchers life experience of ethnography 157
Ethnographic texts 160
Case study 162
Oral traditions and biography 164
Conclusion 165
Recommended reading 166
10 Conclusion 167
Disciplines 169
The biographical turn 169
Identity 170
Time 171
Memory 172
Contents vii
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page vii
Researchers self 172
Methodology 173
New technology 173
Conclusion 174
Recommended reading 175
Glossary 176
References 178
I ndex 200
viii Biographical research
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page viii
Series editors foreword
This Understanding Social Research series is designed to help students to
understand how social research is carried out and to appreciate a variety of
issues in social research methodology. It is designed to address the needs of
students taking degree programmes in areas such as sociology, social policy,
psychology, communication studies, cultural studies, human geography,
political science, criminology and organization studies and who are required
to take modules in social research methods. It is also designed to meet the
needs of students who need to carry out a research project as part of their
degree requirements. Postgraduate research students and novice researchers
will nd the books equally helpful.
The series is concerned to help readers to understand social research
methods and issues. This will mean developing an appreciation of the pleas-
ures and frustrations of social research, an understanding of how to imple-
ment certain techniques, and an awareness of key areas of debate. The
relative emphasis on these different features will vary from book to book,
but in each one the aim will be to see the method or issue from the position
of a practising researcher and not simply to present a manual of how to
steps. In the process, the series will contain coverage of the major methods
of social research and addresses a variety of issues and debates. Each book
in the series is written by a practising researcher who has experience of the
technique or debates that he or she is addressing. Authors are encouraged to
draw on their own experiences and inside knowledge.
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page ix
This new book on biographical method is very timely and very much in
line with the goals of the Understanding Social Research series. Brian
Roberts has been engaged in biographical research for many years and is
therefore able to draw upon a great deal of experience and expertise in writ-
ing this book. However, at the time that he began his work in this area, the
method was still in a relatively underdeveloped state. This is not to say that
the biographical method is new it manifestly is not, as anyone with just a
passing acquaintance with the history of social research will know. The life
history method has been with us for decades. But in the last ten to fteen
years, the biographical method (as it is increasingly referred to) has become
an extremely signicant approach to social research. This surge of interest
in the method can be attributed to a variety of factors: a developing dis-
illusionment with static approaches to data collection; a growing interest in
the life course; an increased concern with lived experience and how best to
express and reveal it; and, of course, the method has shared in the growth in
popularity of qualitative research in general.
It is in this sense that Brian Robertss book is very timely. He brings a great
awareness of the different ways in which the biographical method can be
executed, but he does so at a time when there is burgeoning interest in what
the method entails. His approach indicates a critical awareness of the differ-
ent ways of doing biographical research. Such an awareness comes about
from being steeped in the method in its many forms. He uses many examples
to illustrate his key points, including his own research. It is precisely this
kind of style that I have been keen to develop in the series clear expositions
of particular methods coupled with the injection of writers own research
experiences into those expositions.
Perhaps one of the biggest difculties that many of us face when thinking
or writing about biographical research is what makes it distinctive. The bio-
graphical method draws on materials and ways of conducting research that
can be found in many other ways of doing qualitative research, such as the
examination of personal documents, conducting interviews, and carrying
out a narrative analysis. Readers will nd that Brian Roberts makes clear
what kind of sensibility a biographical perspective entails and, thereby, what
its distinguishing characteristics are. As such, readers will nd the exposition
in this book claries these and many other areas of uncertainty about what
makes the biographical method distinctive.
Alan Bryman
x Biographical research
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page x
During the last ten years I have beneted greatly from discussions on bio-
graphical research with friends and colleagues in the following: Auto/
Biography Study Group, British Sociological Association; Biographical Per-
spectives on European Societies Research Network, European Sociological
Association; Biography and Society, RC38, International Sociological
Association; International Oral History Association; and Llafur: Society of
Welsh Labour History. I would also like to thank friends and colleagues at
Malm University for their kind invitation to be a visiting lecturer and
making me feel most welcome. I am most grateful to Alan Bryman for his
encouragement and support and Open University Press for patience and
advice. Finally, the greatest thanks are to Mag, Rhiannon and Iwan who
have given their unfailing support and encouraged me to nish writing the
book.
Acknowledgements
00 Prelim (ds) 4/10/01 10:38 am Page xi
Biographical research:dening the eld
This book introduces a broad and developing area of study the collec-
tion and interpretation of personal or human documents (Allport 1942;
Blumer 1969). It covers a range of disciplines, how they increasingly influ-
ence each other and key issues of analysis and method in the study of
lives. The book title Biographical Research is not intended to be associ-
ated with a precise definition but to indicate various, often interrelated,
approaches to the study of individuals. Biographical research is an excit-
ing, stimulating and fast-moving field which seeks to understand the
changing experiences and outlooks of individuals in their daily lives, what
they see as important, and how to provide interpretations of the accounts
they give of their past, present and future. Denzin provides an indication
of the scope of the field:
A family of terms combines to shape the biographical method . . .
method, life, self, experience, epiphany, case, autobiography, ethnogra-
phy, auto-ethnography, biography, ethnography story, discourse, narra-
tive, narrator, ction, history, personal history, oral history, case history,
case study, writing presence, difference, life history, life story, self story,
and personal experience story.
(Denzin 1989: 27)
Introduction: biographical
research
1
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 1
The kinds of material that are deemed relevant also cover a wide area:
personal documents or documents of life (Plummer 1983) may include
diaries, letters, autobiographies, biographies, memoranda and other materi-
als (Denzin 1989). Clandinin and Connelly conclude that these are eld
texts, which may be produced before the research for a different usage
(Clandinin and Connelly 1994: 419). They outline oral history, annals and
chronicles, family stories, photographs and other personal and family arte-
facts, research interviews, journals, autobiographical writing, letters, con-
versations and eld notes (Clandinin and Connelly 1994). So, documents
may be written for different purposes, for different audiences (including the
self) and immediately or much later after the events described. All these
different sources and strategies have been adjudged, by opponents and pro-
ponents, to raise important methodological issues surrounding reliability
and validity (see Allport 1942; Denzin 1970: 21959; Plummer 1983:
1338; Golby 1994; Ritchie 1995: 7).
The chapter organization of the book is partly based on disciplinary or
sub-disciplinary approaches (e.g. sociology, oral history) to show how
biographical research and method developed and the debates within
approaches. However, it is increasingly difcult to keep to a simple disci-
plinary format since there is a growing recognition that methodological and
theoretical issues have cross-disciplinary ramications and common lines of
inuence (e.g. from feminist research). Writers and researchers are more and
more aware of developments in other disciplines and are keen to apply
knowledge from numerous sources. Indeed, biographical researchers often
actively seek to move over disciplinary boundaries. Thus, the book includes
references to work across disciplines, for example, particularly in chapters
on memory, narrative and ethnography where interdisciplinary work has
explored similar issues. Therefore, the book is intentionally interdisciplinary
rather than based on one discipline, to show the wider connections between
forms of biographical research. The time is right for the publication of a
book with this intent because signicant developments are taking place
within the rapid expansion of interest in the study of lives.
The book is not a step-by-step guide to doing biographical research but
attempts to show the key methodological issues and variety of biographical
work. Readers will have an appreciation of this developing eld and par-
ticular issues, including interpretation, memory, genres of writing, the audi-
ence, and the researchers role.
Biographical research is part of the broader practice of qualitative meth-
ods: Qualitative researchers tend to espouse an approach in which theory
and empirical investigation are interwoven . . . during or at the end of eld-
work, rather than being a precursor to it (Bryman 1988: 81). Qualitative
research has a number of features stemming from its philosophical and theor-
etical approach to the social world, including remaining close to the experi-
ences and views of the researched. These can be summarized, following
2 Biographical research
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 2
Bryman, as viewing events, action, norms, values etc. from the perspective of
the people who are being studied; to provide detailed descriptions of the
social settings; commitment to understanding events, behaviour, etc. in their
context; to view social life in processual, rather than static terms; a
research strategy which is relatively open and unstructured; and a rejection
of the formulation of theories and concepts in advance of eldwork which
may impose a potentially alien framework on subjects (Bryman 1988:
618). While biographical research shares a common outlook with quali-
tative research more generally, it also has its own specic challenges. An
initial problem in the eld of biographical research is the differing use of
terms oral history, personal narrative, biography and autobiography and
their interchangeable use (Reinharz 1992: 129). However, a common dis-
tinction is made between life story and life history. A life story
is the story a person chooses to tell about the life he or she has lived,
told as completely and honestly as possible, what is remembered of it,
and what the teller wants others to know of it, usually as a result of a
guided interview by another . . . A life story is a fairly complete narrat-
ing of ones entire experience of life as a whole, highlighting the most
important aspects.
(Atkinson 1998: 8)
The life history is usually taken to refer to the collection, interpretation and
report writing of the life (the life history method) in terms of the story told
or as the construction of the past experience of the individual (from various
sources) to relate to the story (see Denzin 1970: 21959; Fischer-Rosenthal
and Rosenthal 1997: 9). Therefore, the term life story is commonly applied
to the narrated story by the author while life history infers the later inter-
pretive, presentational work of the researcher. However, such a distinction
is difcult to maintain in practice where, for example, the researcher con-
ducts an interview with a participant. In general, in this book, the term bio-
graphical research will be used to denote work which uses the stories of
individuals and other personal materials to understand the individual life
within its social context.
The development of biographical research the
narrativist/biographical turn?
It would appear that the cultural and linguistic turn (including the rise of
cultural studies, the reading of cultural phenomena, and so on) in the social
sciences is being followed now by a narrative, biographical or auto/bio-
graphical turn (Riessman 1993: 56; Chamberlayne et al. 2000). For a
number of writers this heralds a very signicant shift in social study. Stanley
claims the study of lives is raising central epistemological and thus political
Introduction: biographical research 3
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 3
issues for all forms of social inquiry and praxis (Stanley 1994b: 89). Thus,
questions are being raised regarding explanation, understanding and inter-
preting, the determination of individual and group action and assumptions
regarding social being.
The self-representation of the individual life or autobiography is not a
new phenomenon but has long development as a cultural practice (Mas-
cuch 1997). Even before the eighteenth-century Enlightenment conceptions
of political rights, religious discourses from the Protestant Reformation car-
ried notions of introspection. According to Mellor and Shilling, the legacy
of a cognitive priority over the carnal can be found in the reexive aspect
of current autobiography (Shilling and Mellor 1994: 125). For Porter,
within the Enlightenment the traditional Puritan genre of spiritual self-
examination was supplemented by more secular modes of confession
(Porter 2000: 278). However, despite philosophical, literary and other
explorations of individuality, modern social sciences have tended to omit the
humanity of the individual in the pursuit of causal accounts, objective
study of the general patterns of human behaviour and standard features of
individuals drawn from natural science assumptions, procedures and prin-
ciples (Rustin 1999: 65). The individuality of individuals and the diversity
of human meanings have been either neglected or relegated to a secondary
concern (a residue). This is not to say that a humanist or idealist strand of
thought has not existed within the social sciences. A complex body of
thought from Diltheys biographical study and Webers verstehen, the
phenomenology of Husserl and Schutz, Chicagoan interactionism (Park,
Mead and their followers) and Sartres existential procedure has had a sub-
terranean existence in the social sciences (see Erben 1998b).
In the 1970s there was a change in the way science was being seen the
nature of scientic knowledge and how it was achieved was being put under
scrutiny. Within the social sciences, for example, interactionist or subjectivist
approaches were being advanced, especially within the sociology of deviance,
which were giving a renewed attention to individual meanings and choice.
Within sociology a challenge to the dominance of functionalism was being
made by Marxian theory, conict approaches, and subjectivist or humanistic
accounts of social life. Meanwhile, cultural studies was beginning to form out
of a mixture of literary criticism, popular cultural analyses, social history,
new sociologies and additions from Gramscian Marxism, Barthes semiotics,
the structuralism of Althusser and other sources (Rustin 1999). The outcome
has been described as a cultural or linguistic turn due to the emphasis on the
concerns with language and representation, and the detailed analysis of
texts. However, the reading and investigation of cultural forms as texts and
the use of discourse to describe bodies of thought and practice produced a
diminution or disappearance of the creative, active role of individuals. Even
so, the increasing inuence of postmodernism with its critique of grand nar-
ratives dominant ideologies and social theories and a stress on change,
4 Biographical research
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 4
diversity, and uncertainty, within cultural studies and the social sciences more
generally, have (despite deconstructionism and discourse theory) opened
possibilities for new accounts of the individual (see Rustin 1999). The growth
of narrative analysis or the advent of a narrative turn has added in further
dimensions, for example, of story and time. If we are living in a postmodern
or post-traditional world where there is not a shared reality, and identity no
longer rests on rituals or given denitions, with resulting risks, uncertainties
and doubts (cf. Beck, Giddens), there is also now scope for new types of indi-
viduality while the same shifts make the construction of new identities a
fraught enterprise (see Shilling and Mellor 1994).
The appeal of biographical research is that it is exploring, in diverse
methodological and interpretive ways, how individual accounts of life experi-
ence can be understood within the contemporary cultural and structural
settings and is thereby helping to chart the major societal changes that are
underway, but not merely at some broad social level. Biographical research
has the important merit of aiding the task of understanding major social
shifts, by including how new experiences are interpreted by individuals
within families, small groups and institutions. Perhaps an informative way of
understanding the biographical turn in the human sciences is to outline the
series of changes in qualitative research during the last century. Denzin and
Lincoln (1994c, 2000b) have identied ve moments of qualitative research,
from the early 1900s and the work of the single eldworker onwards through
various phases after World War II. A crisis of both representation and legiti-
mation has arisen marked by the problem of the connection between experi-
ence and the social text compiled by the researcher (usually associated with
interpretive, linguistic and rhetorical turns in social theory), and questions of
validity, generalizability and reliability retheorized in postpositivist, con-
structionistnaturalistic and interpretive discourses. Theories are to be
understood according to narrative, the concept of the superior researcher is
replaced, and action or activist research and local theorization on specic
contexts and problems are developed (Denzin and Lincoln 1994c: 711). In
a possible sixth moment underway, research practice will be multi-voiced and
multi-representational (Denzin and Lincoln 1994a) (see Conclusion, this
volume).
For some commentators a note of caution is needed when assessing the
emergence of the narrative turn. It may not be as progressive or humanis-
tic as it appears. Goodson (1995) places the upsurge in interest in personal
knowledge in the genre of narrative or story within the context of cultural
restructuring in contemporary society, for example the trend for storytelling,
human interest features and personal anecdote in television news. It must
be placed alongside the attack on many of the existing agencies of cultural
mediation and production (schools, universities, welfare agencies and so
on) and the overall sponsorship of personal and practical forms of dis-
course in cultural production. Noting the power and shifts in the output of
Introduction: biographical research 5
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 5
a global media, he says the life story represents a form of cultural apparatus
that accompanies an aggrandising state and market system (Goodson 1995:
90).
Methodological issues
A reason offered for the traditional lack of use of life stories within sociology
and other elds was offered by Becker that the dominant, scientic hypo-
thetico-deductive method produced the notion that hypotheses were to be
constructed for testing and that life stories did not provide the ndings that
sociological researchers were required to obtain (Becker 1970). Biographi-
cal research was alleged to be wanting when measured against criteria of
reliability and validity: life stories perhaps provided insights, sources for
possible hypotheses before the formulation of real objective research, or
more emphasis had been placed on validity rather than reliability. (It may be
worth noting here that writers have observed that qualitative methods differ
on the balance between reliability and validity; see Kirk and Miller 1986;
Perakyla 1997.)
As we have said, the study of lives has become much more accepted and
commonplace. However, questions still arise concerning the adequacy or
quality of accounts or, putting it rather differently, how far life story
research should follow the methodological standards of quantitative research
or apply its own qualitative principles. The study of life stories has often
taken traditional criteria at least as a starting reference point. However, many
writers do argue that the attempt to recognize the meanings given to the
social world by individuals requires rather different criteria. For example,
Hatch and Wisniewski argue that truth and related epistemological issues
can be seen in ways that go beyond the standardized notions of reliability,
validity, and generalizability. They also give a range of alternatives used by
writers, including adequacy, aesthetic nality, accessibility, authenticity,
credibility, explanatory power, persuasiveness, coherence, plausibility, trust-
worthiness, epistemological validity and verisimilitude and so on (Hatch and
Wisniewski 1995a: 1289; see also Riessman 1993; Denzin and Lincoln
1994a; Blumenfeld-Jones 1995). Here, Silverman provides a warning that
there has been a romantic inuence on contemporary sociology, which gives
the experiential as authentic; he stresses that the interview is collaborative
in the construction of the self. More broadly the interview and the appeal of
the authentic have a wider presence in society and should be part of expla-
nation rather than to be relied upon (Silverman 1997: 248).
The study of biographical research rests on a view of individuals as cre-
ators of meanings which form the basis of their everyday lives. Individuals
act according to meanings through which they make sense of social exist-
ence. Interpretive, subjective or qualitative approaches to the study of lives
6 Biographical research
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 6
have been inspired by Webers verstehen, Schutzs phenomenological per-
spective, Chicagoan interactionism, Sartres progressiveregressive method,
narratology, literary criticism, and ethnographic analyses in eldwork, in
an attempt to outline the subjective meanings of the life account. Despite
their diversity these approaches have some common problems of analysis,
such as the reality of events and the meanings attributed to them by life
stories, the particular tools or conventions of language used to represent life
experience, and issues in the means of interpretation (Denzin 1989: 1314).
While the attention to subjective meanings places biographical research
rmly within the orbit of qualitative methods, until recently it has attracted
relatively little textbook discussion, being subsumed within ethnographical
eldwork or as allied with and subsumed under in-depth or informal inter-
viewing.
A key debate within much biographical research is realism versus con-
structionism in the study of lives it is a debate which has generated forth-
right views among international sociologists in the eld of biography and
society. At its most simple realism holds that there is some objective know-
ledge of reality an empirical, material basis for individual experience and
that stories reect a lived reality. For realism, the tendency towards a con-
structionist or narrative position, the reliance on the text, the analysis of
intertextuality and multiple voices is ultimately a retreat from any idea of
reality interpretation feeds upon interpretation in a swirl of language and
symbols. Such a view, it is held, lacks historical insight, political context and
a sociological perspective on institutions and structure. For constructionists,
at the extreme, the view that life stories reect reality or empirical truth is
simplistic and misconceived a biographical illusion: stories are not simply
referential of experience (see Denzin 1989: 14, 206). In fact, both the
respondents story and its interpretation by the researcher are shaped by
narrative conventions. The emphasis in analysis is also upon how the story
is formed, including the performance and collaboration with the
researcher. In a more postmodernist vein, there is recognition that interpre-
tation should be attentive to inconsistency and ambiguities in stories rather
than assume one story and a simple receptiveness of the audience. Differing
textual interpretations are seen as possible, if not desirable (see M. Evans
1993). Focus turns to the processes of writing up of research from the
taped stories and eld notes rather than representing an objective reality,
narrative structures and rhetorical devices become resources for construct-
ing a text (Richardson 1995: 199). These structures provide meanings and
thereby dene the people and circumstances within the research process.
Even scientic writing rests on narrative structures and conventions
(Richardson 1995: 199).
Usually, biographical researchers take a pragmatic stance in research
practice instead of a rm allegiance to realism or constructionism. There
has to be a basis in the material world including the embedded institutions,
Introduction: biographical research 7
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 7
core structures, and evident bodily realities in which individual existence is
situated. Life stories commonly refer to real events and experiences and
often the tellers may be the only witnesses to such happenings but, com-
monly, their accounts can be checked against other written, visual or oral
accounts. Nevertheless, how these events are perceived and selected (even
chronologically reordered or changed over time) and placed within under-
standings of the individual life by metaphor, myth and so on are neces-
sary aspects of analysis. A constructionist view can be used to help to
analyse how the tellers shape the telling of their experiences of particular
events how the reality (for them) is formed through the account. At base,
the common pragmatic view would be that stories or accounts by indi-
viduals are central but that they are collected and used in different ways for
different methodological and theoretical purposes thus resisting being
trapped by realist or constructionist imperatives. For Atkinson and Coffey,
the importance of reexivity and the dependence on conventions of writing
and reading in textual practices must be recognized, but they argue strongly
that rejections of simple positivist and realist assumptions should not
necessarily lead to the nihilism of a textual approach. Writing conventions
need to be applied and explored while conveying the diverse lives of others
(Atkinson and Coffey 1995: 55). Again, generally, in biographical research
a pragmatic orientation is often taken, relying on the similarities in
approaches and procedures the emphasis is on purpose, to gain insights
into individual lives as, perhaps, reecting wider cultural meanings of the
society rather than dwelling on differences in methodological and theoreti-
cal assumptions (Miller 2000: 18).
A number of important changes have taken place in the discussion of
research methods during the past fteen years or so. Qualitative methodol-
ogy has risen in relative prominence alongside its quantitative counterpart.
In addition, the emphasis on methods has broadened to methodology as
the discussion of stages in research have brought a new notion of the
research process as involving complex relations between the empirical
world, data collection, research design and theorization as the researcher
moves between parts of research procedure (Bryman and Burgess 1994b:
12). In recent qualitative texts more attention has been devoted to
analysing data. Bryman and Burgess (1994b: 36) note there have been two
main general strategies discussed in these texts: analytic induction and
grounded theory.
Florian Znaniecki offered the analytic induction approach to theorization
as a contrast to statistical methods (see Hammersley 1990: 1634). Analytic
induction has a number of stages. The researcher outlines a preliminary de-
nition of an area, problem or issue and constructs a provisional explanation.
Cases are studied to see if they t the initial hypothesis. If the data and
hypothesis do not match, the hypothesis may require redenition or the
case or cases are rejected. The initial area, problem or issue may need
8 Biographical research
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 8
reformulation. As cases are examined the process of hypothesis redenition
continues and more consistency with the data is attained. The process con-
tinues with the interrelation between data and hypothesis being scrutinized
until a relationship is established as cases that do not t are no longer found.
In summary, in place of statistical sampling a theoretical procedure is
applied. Analytic induction is based on a close investigation and comparison
of cases new cases are examined for similarities and differences with exist-
ing cases. Analytic induction has the advantages of an intimate interrelation
between research observation, conceptualization and theory. On the other
hand there are a number of difculties. Criticisms have pointed to its weak-
ness when compared with causal or enumerative procedures and the great
amount of time and effort required (see Denzin 1970: 199; Vidich and
Lyman 1994: 39). Analytic induction would seem, at rst sight, to be very
appropriate for the analysis of life stories since it does not depend on pre-
existing formulations or large samples: Rather, it proceeds from scrutiny of
one case to produce a low-level generalisation which then starts to dene
and characterise a given phenomenon (Plummer 1983: 125). Unfortunately,
the instances of the detailed use of analytical induction appear sparse within
qualitative research, possibly due to its demanding procedures.
A second major procedure for relating research and theory generation is
grounded theory as offered by Glaser and Strauss (1967). For Charmaz, the
procedure can be used across disciplines and is compatible with both inter-
pretive and traditional, positivistic assumptions of an external reality that
researchers can discover and record (Charmaz 1995: 30). The intent is to
provide a systematic approach to qualitative research which clearly outlines
the connection between data and theory and how conceptual development
can be achieved and checked. Theory is generated during the research
through an ongoing interrelation between a systematic data collection and
analysis (Strauss and Corbin 1994: 273). The process is to be open with
ideas and conceptualization arising from the data rather than dependent
upon pre-existing theoretical approaches. Any other insights from other
sources have to be related to the data to avoid mismatch. Grounded theory
also challenged a series of assumptions about qualitative research, for
instance, as impressionistic and unsystematic and as prior to more scien-
tic methods while showing that data collection and analysis were inter-
related (Charmaz 1995: 29).
In the generation of new theory through comparative analysis, verication
should take place accurately and as much as possible but it should not over-
take generation theory must be grounded in data (Glaser and Strauss 1970:
34). As Hammersley says, empirical t is achieved by concepts within
grounded theory as sensitizing in providing meaning and plausibility
more than a prior theory; for most purposes it is not necessary to go beyond
the level of plausibility provided by comparative method and grounded
theorizing (Hammersley 1990: 1734). Importantly, by theoretical sampling
Introduction: biographical research 9
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 9
cases are scrutinized until new features no longer arise, or theoretical satu-
ration. As with analytical induction, often grounded theory is referred to in
biographical research more as a general stance rather than in detail.
Grounded theory provides for a connection between data and theory to be
maintained as a procedure for researchers to follow in addressing the com-
plexities of social life but it has also been criticized for the practical problems
of the degree of time spent and the detail of analysis. Moreover, a common
criticism is that it is often cited in research as a means of giving a respectabil-
ity to the approach applied. It is also frequently cited as an inuence on
developments in computer software programs for qualitative research (see
Mangabeira 1996).
Grounded theory does attempt to tackle the problem in qualitative
research of a tendency towards description due to an avoidance of theory, or
reluctance to address it, fearing that the naturalistic commitment to the sub-
ject will be compromised. Theory used too early, it is felt, may atten out
social ambiguities and inconsistencies and obscure the views of respondents.
Analytical induction, Bryman suggests, may be more prone to this problem
than grounded theory with its more delayed use of theoretical generaliza-
tion; again a tension can be found between greater theoretical concerns and
the respondents view of life (Bryman 1988: 87). In reviewing the subsequent
development of qualitative research, Denzin and Lincoln argue that while
some postpositivist bases of the grounded theory approach can be chal-
lenged the general procedure of accumulating interpretations from detailed
observations of social life will remain (Denzin and Lincoln 1994a: 577).
As stated earlier, grounded theory is often mentioned in particular quali-
tative work, including biographical studies, as informing the procedure
used, and commonly a broadly phenomenological or interactionist
approach is also cited (Jones 1983). However, frequently how the procedure
has been applied is far from easily apparent. While in the study of one life
theoretical sampling and constant comparison are not immediately
appropriate, multiple life stories could be used in this way (Plummer 1983:
1267). For Charmaz, there is an inherent empiricism in grounded theory
methods whether their data sources are autobiographic, published
accounts, movies, intensive interviews, case studies, participant observer
eld notes or personal journals. There has been a realist orientation
(despite initial interpretive assumptions) because of the authority given to
the researcher to provide an objective account of the detailed lives and sur-
rounding world of the respondents (Charmaz 1995: 31). Similarly, Miller
points to the use of saturation as an important part of a realist/grounded
theory approach within some biographical work (e.g. Bertaux) (Miller
2000: 11). Charmaz believes that while grounded theory may be criticized
for an emphasis on fracturing the data by analytical categories it does not
rule out a concentration on the individual. However, Charmaz later, in
responding to criticisms, for instance from narrativists that it breaks up the
10 Biographical research
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 10
data and neglects how meanings are constructed by narrator and researcher,
points to both objectivist and constructivist visions for the future of
grounded theory (Charmaz 2000: 521, 528).
Finally, analytic induction or grounded theory or other observational/inter-
pretive procedures can be seen as forms of reasoning. For instance, Polking-
horne argues that in seeing the relations between data and theory as forms of
reasoning, two types can be found: the paradigmatic type is based on para-
digmatic reasoning and applies an analytic process that nds categories in
the data, whereas a narrative type based on narrative reason is an analytic
process that gives storied accounts (Polkinghorne 1995: 21; see Polkinghorne
1988).
A topic much discussed in qualitative research is the process of coding of
data either by hand or via qualitative research computer programs (see
Bernard 1995: Ch. 9; Coffey and Atkinson 1996: Chs 2, 6; Miller 2000:
1503). The notion of coding has been applied in qualitative work in a
variety of ways. Generally, it refers to how the data are sorted, categorized
by codes which summarize or order the material. This is a continuous
process as the data are accumulated and scrutinized, and can guide the gath-
ering of future material as well as the initial steps in formulating concepts
and theory. The close examination of gathered material provides new
insights and ideas, new ways of organizing parts of the materials, forming
types and raising new research questions. Coding is a means of relaying
these fresh insights to the data. It may take various forms according to the
depth and time spent on the contact with the material and research setting
from tentative coding at the beginning to more denite levels and linkages
of categories as material is collected and analysed. For example, Bernard dis-
tinguishes between coding and indexing when describing codes as encryp-
tion, indexing and measurement devices (Bernard 1995: 193). Also, stages
in analysis can be identied according to initial work in the collection of
materials and, later, fuller attention to coding and building connections.
Crabtree and Miller contrast codes in an editing style of data analysis where
observations on data are organized into categories or codes with a template
style which is a prior coding according to some initial view of the data,
previous research, or existing theorization (Crabtree and Miller 1999).
Further, various writers have indicated different types of coding according
to family relationships, social contexts and other social criteria, or codes
which denote explanations, descriptions, and so on.
Another issue prominent in biographical research is the question of size of
study how many stories to collect? Some researchers would rule out a
single life story as the basis for a study. An impression at least has been given
that early sociological interest in the life history has devoted attention to the
single case. This has been due to the famous examples such as the life of
Stanley in The J ack-Roller (Shaw [1930]1966) and Wadek in The Polish
Peasant (Thomas and Znaniecki [191820]1958; see Chapter 3). But while
Introduction: biographical research 11
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 11
these individuals are presented at length, for instance Wadeks life-record
is over three hundred pages, it is preceded by around eighty pages of intro-
duction, has seventeen pages of conclusion and numerous explanatory foot-
notes, there is the claim that the story is shared: Wadek is seen as
representative of a wider mass and Stanley as typical of hundreds of others.
Many sociologists would say that it is not possible to gain an adequate por-
trait of a culture or to evaluate what is specic to the individual and what
belongs to the wider group, institution or society since there is not an appro-
priate theoretical sample and basis for comparability and representativeness.
On the other hand, an individual may be the only direct witness to certain
events (although indirect evidence may be available) and may be regarded as
representative (an exemplar) of a group, e.g. as in the case of Wadek and
Stanley, their stories are placed alongside other source materials. In The
Polish Peasant, groups of family letters (including short excerpts of letters to
Wadek from his family) are included alongside newspaper reports, ofcial
records and other materials. It may also be argued that the research focus is
upon particular meanings rather than group regularities. An objection could
be offered that a simple individualsociety split (the individual as essentially
separate) is being offered by ruling out single life stories. Again, usually in
biographical research, a pragmatic approach to methodological concerns is
evident. As Erben warns, too much emphasis on research techniques can
limit an understanding of the connection between the method and purpose
of the study (Erben 1998b: 4). The vital issue could be the quality of the
theoretical reasoning rather than questions of representativeness and so on.
There is also the question of purpose. In The Polish Peasant each type of
material (e.g. letters, ofcial records, and the life-record) was used to gain
information on differing aspects of individual, family and communal
change. The intimate detail of the single life history (or a small number),
with some commentaryinterpretation, allows us to gain a feeling of know-
ing a life and situation outside common experience and establishes the war-
rant for credibility and authority in the text (Atkinson 1990: 133). Whereas
commonly today multiple lives are given within an analysis of the wider
socio-historical context, what is striking about The Polish Peasant is the
range of materials used to address substantive areas and the breadth of
theoretical approach. What was not clear in the classic study and remains
an issue today which may be obscured by taking a pragmatic approach
are the types of conceptualization and uses of personal documents being
obtained within the research process: at its simplest, is the purpose to gener-
ate or validate theory, gain new conceptual insights or merely illustrate exist-
ing theories, or some combination, during collection, interpretation and the
presentation of the research?
A nal question concerns readership or audience: how the text is read,
received, or deconstructed has gained signicant attention in recent ethno-
graphic and biographical study. However, the questions of interpretation,
12 Biographical research
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 12
authenticity or plausibility of life stories and the construction of life his-
tories is not a new one, as shown by Blumers evaluation of Thomas and
Znanieckis The Polish Peasant (Blumer 1969: 126). Blumer questioned the
representativeness, reliability, adequacy of purpose and validity of interpre-
tation of the various documents used the exact connection between the
material presented and the development of conceptualization remained
unclear. Nevertheless, Blumer argued that a number of important contri-
butions had been made including the advocacy of subjective aspects of
social life and the necessity of human documents, and the life record in par-
ticular.
The researchers role
Traditionally in qualitative research commentators in methodological texts
have stressed the empathetic orientation to the subject on behalf of the
researcher, who nevertheless has an objective role as the questioner, inter-
preter and presenter of the nished research text. More recently the empha-
sis has shifted to a recognition of the collaborative and reexive role of the
researcher. Writers have called for researchers to indicate their own relation-
ship to the study their presence in the research and the inuence of social
background, for example gender, race, social class, or religion. However,
there is a difculty in assessing how much of the personal life of the
researcher should be considered and entered in the text. Sparkes points out
that a self-absorption or narcissism may intrude (Sparkes 1994a: 166).
Atkinson argues that no matter to what psychological, social science or
other uses the material is put (such as for information on community or
family or disciplinary concerns), the interpretations of life stories are either
from a theoretical or personal or subjective basis (Atkinson 1998: 66). Even
so, it seems there is more often some kind of overlap or homology between
the theoretical and the subjective inuences (Atkinson 1998: 66). At base,
however, despite these questions and trends in biographical research, the
intention in the study of lives is to gain an understanding of individuals life
experiences within their socio-historical context.
To place the researcher fully within the research is to recognize that we all
have stories and it seems a fundamental part of social interaction to tell our
tales. In the collection of stories (via interviews), interaction is not only
helping individuals to reect and give form and structure to their lives (in the
interview situation) but also helping researchers to begin to draw on their
own experiences. How collaborative this relation is in the interview, the
interpretation and the presentation, has been open to much discussion
whether the power relation is fundamentally unequal and cannot be over-
come or whether it can be modied during the full research process. But the
application of terms such as power, authority, empowerment, voice
Introduction: biographical research 13
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 13
and reciprocity in regard to relations between researcher and interviewer
should be used with caution to describe what is a complex and problematic
process (see Sparkes 1997b). For some, biographical and other qualitative
research is a means of social intervention that recognizes not only that the
research role does affect the context but that it should be involved in aiding
personal or collective realization as consciousness raising, as generating
solidarities, or giving those who have not been heard a voice. Even so, a dif-
cult issue remains a commitment to giving a voice may be insufcient
since little is added to their perceptions of the world, which may in turn
reect dominant discourses (Sparkes 1994b: 108).
In summary, discussion of the researchers role (as a biographical partici-
pant) raises not simply the degree to which the researcher should place
her/his voice within a socio-political context but methodological and ethi-
cal questions concerning the researchers role. For the researcher, questions
arise across the research from collection to presentation regarding subjective
interpretations and judgements as new issues or new insights arise. More
profoundly, the degree and type of personal investment is in question, e.g.
how much to reveal of the self in sharing stories, in building trust, estab-
lishing credibility or establishing solidarity in the eld and in the written
study (see Sparkes 1994a: 167; Atkinson 1998: 64).
Theoretical approaches
Qualitative research studies, including biographical research, have drawn on
various theoretical approaches ethnomethodology, phenomenology, narra-
tive analysis, symbolic interactionism, discourse theory, conversational
analysis and others (see Silverman 1993; Atkinson and Hammersley 1994:
2578; Bryman and Burgess 1994a, 1999; Denzin and Lincoln 1994c; Feld-
man 1995). Bryman and Burgess (1994b) report that some analyses have
been based around how language is used drawing, for example, on ethno-
methodology, symbolic interactionism or discourse. Other studies, including
classic ethnography and life story work, follow a descriptive or interpre-
tive approach. A third strand is marked by a priority given to theory gener-
ation, such as grounded theory. Of course, these distinctions are not hard
and fast (Bryman and Burgess 1994b: 6). In terms of biographical research,
studies tend to cross these boundaries, even if the detail of how they are
using grounded theory or symbolic interactionism can be rather thin. Useful
comparisons of different interpretive paradigms positivist, postpositivist,
constructivist, feminist, ethnic, Marxist, cultural studies in qualitative
research generally, are given by Denzin and Lincoln (1994c). In biographi-
cal work in particular, Miller (2000) outlines three approaches to the study
of life stories and family histories. First, the realist approach uses induction,
among other procedures, employs saturation (cf. grounded theory) and
14 Biographical research
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 14
unfocused interviews, and considers reliability as important. Second, the
neo-positivist approach is deductive, theory testing, uses focused interviews
and places importance on validity. Finally, the narrative approach sees fact
as secondary to an exploration of the ongoing construction of an indi-
viduals unique standpoint, uses life or family stories, and emphasizes the
interplay between interviewer and interviewee in structuring reality (Miller
2000: 1014). We can add that the approaches to life stories may vary
across, as well as within, the social science disciplines. Different theoretical
and methodological approaches may be brought together in types of study
or a single study. But commonalities do exist: for example, where interviews
are used there is an interactive relationship and, more generally, there is a
cross-disciplinary commitment to show the respondents meanings (Yow
1994: 10). Miller sees both overlaps and tensions between approaches. In
terms of theorization, realism and neo-positivism may stress induction or
deduction but in practice the research process is more a circular movement
between the two, while sharing notions of objective truth and factual
reality. In contrast, narrative approaches question the idea of a singular
objective reality, and focus on the constructive, relational, reality-
producing nature of the interview situation. Nevertheless, all three see some
kind of tension between the individuals subjective view and their percep-
tion of social structure (see Miller 2000: 1417).
Biographical research
The term biographical research is used in this book to encompass a range
of types of research (e.g. in oral history, sociology) and biographical data
(text, oral, visual, multimedia). The book addresses a number of methodo-
logical and other issues, including the epistemological concerns in research,
in the use of life stories from the interview or self-written accounts of lives.
While a variety of terms are used to describe work in this general eld, for
instance in view of its methodology, e.g. the in-depth or life-story interview
with those studied (the story-teller, respondent, or the researched), and what
is collected and how it is interpreted via the life-story, life history, life cycle
and so on, what is very interesting is the growing sense of common purpose.
The intent of biographical research in its various guises is to collect and
interpret the lives of others as part of human understanding.
Chapter 2: Uses of biographical research This chapter provides a gen-
eral overview of how biographical research has been used within a selected
number of disciplines and empirical areas. The aim is to indicate the broad
range of work now being undertaken and its usefulness in terms of infor-
mation and insights that would be more difcult to obtain within other
methods.
Chapter 3: The life history This chapter examines the origins of the life
Introduction: biographical research 15
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 15
history approach within Chicagoan sociology during the 1920s and 1930s
where it was applied to understand the processes of immigration and the
nature of social problems. The use of personal documents within sociology
and other disciplines was subject to intensive reassessment in the 1930s and
1940s, while some revival of use took place in the 1960s. More latterly, the
life history approach has undergone further re-examination following the
inuence of postmodernism and other views.
Chapter 4: Autobiography and biography This chapter addresses the
literary forms of autobiography and biography, for instance with reference
to questions of genre and the interplay between modes of writing. Questions
of referentiality, authorship, the ction/non-ction distinction and the
breadth of autobiographical expression and biography are considered. Writ-
ing on the life of Dickens is discussed in relation to how his ction contained
an autobiographical statement and biographical connections.
Chapter 5: Auto/biography and sociology This chapter examines the
study of auto/biography within sociology, as the distinction between auto-
biography and biography has been challenged due to the inuences of femin-
ist, postmodernist and other writing. Again, questions of genre are raised
and the role of the researchers own biography in the collection and writing
of the lives of others.
Chapter 6: Oral history This chapter outlines the development of oral
history which seeks to report the past experiences of individuals (and com-
munities and organizations). Oral history has increasingly been affected by
methodological and theoretical work in other disciplines on the complexi-
ties of understanding life stories, for instance the absences in recollection
and the reshaping of the past. Oral history has also challenged traditional
history by giving the life experience of those who usually are not heard.
Chapter 7: The narrative analysis of lives This chapter describes the
narrative approach to the study of lives, which takes the idea of story to
interpret how individuals construct an account of life. Writers have pointed
to various forms of narrative and the part they play in the formation of the
self or identity. The narrative often contains a moral evaluation or summary
of the life. The chapter also contains various other models of lives that have
been applied in the social sciences for example, the life course and life
cycle.
Chapter 8: Memory and autobiography The question of memory has
become more and more central to discussion of the collection of life stories
within biographical research. Oral historians, for example, are looking
towards other disciplines, including psychology, for greater understanding
of the operation and forms of memory, while within psychology some writ-
ers are attempting to include more sophisticated notions of the interrelation
between the individual autobiography and social context.
Chapter 9: Ethnography and biographical research Fieldwork has tra-
ditionally contained accounts of individual lives, typically in the guise of the
16 Biographical research
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 16
ethnographic informant. There have been examples of fuller accounts of
individual lives but relatively little attempt to analyse life stories in detail.
However, this situation is undergoing change as the interview relation, the
researchers own life and research life, and the researched as subjects are
under increasing re-examination.
Chapter 10: Conclusion For a number of writers the human and social
sciences are experiencing a biographical or auto/biographical turn as the
importance of the collection of lives and the researchers own biographical
relation to research become more apparent and raise questions concerning
how knowledge is produced. The chapter returns to the problems of de-
nition and practice in biographical research questions of purpose, and
methodological and related issues and, nally, issues of practice including
the researcher as auto/biographer.
Recommended reading
Bryman, A. and Burgess, R. G. (eds) (1999) Qualitative Research, 4 vols. London:
Sage. (These volumes include key articles on issues, methods, and analysis and
interpretation.)
Denzin, N. K. and Lincoln, Y. S. (eds) ([1994]2000) Handbook of Qualitative
Research, 2nd revised ed. London: Sage. (A very comprehensive textbook which
addresses important issues in qualitative research including major perspectives,
strategies of inquiry, methods of collection, modes of analysis, interpretation,
and the future of qualitative research. It contains chapters on biographical
method, narrative, interviewing and documents.)
Riessman, C. K. (1993) Narrative Analysis. London: Sage. (A short introduction to
narrative analysis, which indicates its use (with a wide range of references)
across numerous disciplines, raises methodological and theoretical issues and
provides practical models of analysis using examples.)
Yow, V. R. (1994) Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists.
London: Sage. (This is a practical outline and review of types of research studies
in oral history. It contains an interview guide, information on research principles
and record keeping, as well as reviews of key texts at the end of each chapter.)
Introduction: biographical research 17
01intro (ds) 2/10/01 9:30 am Page 17